In the Bible, the book of Acts, chapter 6, tells the story of the twelve disciples calling for a division of labor between those required to serve community needs and those responsible for preaching and teaching. They argued, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables." As a consequence, the community chose seven leaders of good standing for special service, and they stood before the apostles, "who prayed and laid hands on them."
This biblical story is the beginning of a process in Christian history whereby the churches have "ordered" their ministries, creating two categories of believers: clergy and laity. From the very beginning, however, the argument has been that clergy are no better Christians than any other faithful Christian believer. God calls the whole people (the laos) into ministry, yet the people (led by the Spirit) have found it helpful to designate certain people for various forms of service to and for the church. The apostle Paul wrote about the church as the "body of Christ" filled with members pursuing a variety of callings. "The gifts [God] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. . . ." (Ephesians 4:11–13). This diversity of roles, Christians came to believe, was not only efficient but also part of God's plan.
Yet designating some persons to be special religious leaders (clergy) is not exclusive to Christianity. In pre-Christian history the ancient Greeks held to a concept of service wherein a few leaders were recognized and charged to support and enable others. In Asia the Chinese philosopher Confucius taught that for the good of society certain leaders were needed to provide civil service—a high calling. In ancient Israel the priests, the prophets, and even the Pharisees were all valued as people whom God called to serve the wider community.
In the history of Western civilization Christian and Jewish communities have formalized religious leadership through a ritual ceremony known as "ordination," whereby clergy are formally authorized to preach and teach. Christians have further defined the clergy as persons linked directly to the life and ministry of Jesus through "apostolic succession." Apostolic succession connotes the idea that the clergy are "set apart" through prayer and the laying on of hands of Christian leaders who have themselves been ordained in a similar manner. The authority of Jesus Christ is channeled to each new generation of clergy through a succession of ordained leaders, or through the continuity of the Christian community as a whole. Once ordained, the clergy carry an "indelible mark" of sacramental privilege and identity. And even when the clergy cease to function in priestly roles, they are forever ordained—vested for life with a divine authority to serve the needs of the church and to spread the gospel message.
Threefold Ordering of Clergy
Christian practice has defined three orders of clergy: deacons, elders, and bishops. Building on the practices of Hellenistic Judaism, the early church designated certain leaders as elders, or presbyteroi. Such persons were charged with religious leadership on behalf of the whole Christian community, exercising ministries of word and sacrament in local congregations and shaping the teaching and outreach of the early church. This basic clerical office (priest or minister) was entrusted primarily with ministries of word and sacrament.
In the history of the church, however, two other orders of clergy developed. On the one hand there were the bishops, or episkopoi —priests with wider church responsibilities over especially large Christian communities, or over several congregations. The role of the bishop was patterned after the head of the Roman household and served to protect individual Christian groups from heretical ideas and practices. In time bishops came to exercise political power as well as provide theological guidance. And in Western Europe the bishop of Rome, the pope, became chief ecclesiastical and political overseer over all clergy and laity. The early church specified certain qualifications for bishops and maintained its right and responsibility to make judgments about the suitability of those chosen to oversee the Christian ecclesiastical household, as set forth in the biblical letters of Timothy and Titus.
Finally, as ministries of word and sacrament and ministries of oversight were defined and limited to priests and bishops, a third order of clergy took form. Although this third order was less formal, certain persons, called deacons or diakonai, were consecrated as servants to work within and for the churches and embody the caring mandate of the gospel. Deacons supported the work of the other clergy—elders and bishops. Deacons emphasized the servant calling of the whole Christian community and embodied the servant ministry of the servant community.
At one level the Christian church rejected all hierarchical value judgments made about its members and leaders. Christianity turned the world's standards upside down, stating that the first shall be last. Such radical theology argued against the need for having any clergy at all. In practice, however, the threefold ordering of clergy leadership became deeply embedded in Christian history. Bishops, priests, and deacons came to control incredible and sometimes destructive spiritual and material power. The Protestant Reformation in Western Europe tried to correct some of the problems in the sixteenth century by going back to first-century practices. Reformers rejected bishops and made deacons into a "lay" order. They defined the clergy almost exclusively in terms of word and sacrament.
Protestantism dramatically changed the relationship between clergy and laity. Although most Protestant churches continued to have clergy, Protestant theology emphasized the "priesthood of all believers." Clergy were not considered any better than laity but were simply viewed as persons blessed with needed talents and empowered to function religiously with, and on behalf of, the whole community. Protestants considered ordination a special or "holy" calling, but its holiness was connected with the actions of the whole people of God (the priesthood of all believers), rather than with the life of a particular individual. Apostolic succession, for many Protestants, was the collective legacy of the Christian community keeping faith through the ages, rather than a sequence of ceremonies (or hands) linking one ordained person to the next one.
Although Roman Catholicism continued to affirm the important role of the clergy, especially as sacramental leaders, in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Catholics reaffirmed the importance of the ministry of the whole people of God. Progressive reforms were instituted to honor the diversity of ministries within the Christian community.
In North America all religious life and all practice were shaped by the democratic ideology of the United States. Critical of all privilege and status, some Christians rejected the importance of formal education for clergy and became followers of revivalists and preachers filled with the Holy Spirit. On the American frontier and in rapidly industrializing cities, the clergy reached out to serve the needs of society through social action ministries. In the United States the clergy became change agents committed to correcting injustices—taking leadership in movements for peace, for the abolition of slavery, for labor, for civil rights, and for the correction of numerous social problems. Although the clergy lost their stature in public life as an elite class of civic leaders, they became more directly involved in the lives of people.
The twentieth century has seen a renewed appreciation for the threefold ordering of ministry. Not only have Christians developed constructive ecumenical conversations about bishops, priests, and deacons, but also clergy in the United States have moved beyond traditional parish responsibilities to become preachers on the revival circuit, chaplains in hospitals and on campuses, missionaries to cities or distant lands, or leaders of developing ministries in totally new settings of need. Regardless of the arena of service, however, all clergy have been chosen by a religious community and authorized to provide religious support and guidance for the faithful.
Qualifications for Clergy
The question of qualifications for the clergy has been debated throughout Christian and Jewish history from the first century to the present. Do they need to be circumcised or uncircumcised? Youthful or mature? Well educated or especially pious? Charismatic preachers or skilled healers? Born-again believers or learned scholars? Married or celibate? Divorced or married only once? Polygamous or monogamous? Male or female? Heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual? Persons with disabilities, or persons who have no obvious physical or mental limitations? In some settings there are additional questions generated by the cultural context within which the church exists. In the United States, the clergy are found to be all of these types of people, depending on the denomination. Although some of these qualifications are considered irrelevant in modern times, others continue to generate heated debate and painful choices. Controversies about who can be clergy often touch the most precious and sacred values of local congregations and wider church traditions.
Generally speaking, most religious communities look to the various practices and prohibitions outlined in the Bible to decide who is qualified to be clergy. Some (e.g., the Quakers) reject the idea of any clergy. Others believe that only men can be clergy. Still others insist that clergy should be celibate. Most traditions require some special education and training for clergy. Overall, people tend to believe that clergy are essential to the well-being of the religious community. They understand clergy to be "called" by God, as well as by the church or synagogue or mosque or temple, and they hold clergy to "holy" or "priestly" responsibilities—preaching and officiating at the sacramental rites of the traditions (ministries of word and sacrament). Within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and so on rabbis, priests/ministers, imams, and monks teach and lead prayers for the whole community, keeping alive the traditions they represent. In all cases the clergy exercise a sacred trust for the well-being of all adherents of a particular religious tradition.
See alsoChurch; Clothing, Religious; Judaism; Judeo-Christian Tradition; Liturgy and Worship; Mainline Protestantism; Ministry; Ordination; Ordination of Women; Parish; Practice; Prayer; Preaching; Priestess; Priesthood; Religious Communities; Ritual; Roman Catholicism; Sacraments; Seminaries.
Schillebeeckx, Edward. The Church with a Human Face:A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry. 1985.
World Council of Churches. Baptism, EucharistandMinistry. 1982.
Barbara Brown Zikmund
Members of the clergy played a large role in everyday life during the Renaissance. They performed certain religious activities and duties within Christian churches and provided leadership and guidance for laypeople*. During the Renaissance, Catholics and Protestants had very different ideas about the structure of the clergy, their duties, and their relationships with laypeople.
The Catholic Clergy. The Roman Catholic Church maintained a sharp distinction between clergy and laypeople. Catholic theology* taught that members of the clergy had been called by God to serve the church. They had the power to bless church members and to help them achieve salvation. Clergy members were easy to identify because they wore special clothing and hairstyles. When a man entered the service of the church, a bishop ceremonially removed some of his hair, marking him as a clergyman.
Clergy members were entitled to respect from laypeople, and they also enjoyed legal privileges. For example, they could not be tried in regular courts, but only in special church courts. They also did not have to pay taxes or perform military service. However, clergy members also had restrictions on their behavior. Most notably, they were not permitted to marry or have children.
Some clergy members belonged to Religious orders, such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans. These people, known as "regulars" (meaning "those who live according to a religious rule") often lived in communal houses, known as monasteries or convents. Within these houses, the regulars remained apart from everyday life. They also took vows of poverty, chastity*, and obedience. The secular* clergy, by contrast, lived in the community. This group included local priests and bishops.
At the lowest levels of the clergy were the men in minor orders, which served the church in lesser ways. For example, lectors read from the Bible during services. Minor orders were not permanent positions. Those who held them could give them up and reenter secular life.
Members of the minor orders could enter the major orders, becoming subdeacons, deacons, priests, or bishops. Subdeacons and deacons assisted bishops during services, but the positions served mainly as steppingstones to the priesthood. Priests had the authority to preach, lead services, and perform marriages and other rituals. Bishops oversaw the priests and directed and controlled religious activity in their dioceses*. The supreme authority in the church was the pope. Elected by the College of Cardinals—a select body of bishops, priests, and deacons who advised the pope—he had the final say over matters of church policy, appointments, beliefs, and morals.
The Protestant Clergy. The German religious reformer Martin Luther rejected the idea that the clergy should be separate from and have authority over laypeople. Luther believed that the church as a whole, not certain chosen individuals, had the power to forgive sin. He saw the congregation as a "priesthood of all believers." Although he saw the need for certain people to perform official religious functions, he believed that local congregations or their secular leaders should elect their own clergy members.
Luther did not support the idea of having ranks within the clergy. His follower Philipp Melanchthon, however, believed that God had established the ministry and that only those chosen for it had the authority to perform religious functions. In the late 1500s Lutherans took the first steps toward creating a church hierarchy*. They created the office of superintendent to supervise pastors and established a governing body, called the consistory, to oversee the clergy.
Different Protestant faiths had other views of the clergy. Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) believed only those with a mission could teach or preach the word of God. John Calvin of France, by contrast, established a rigid system of ranks within the clergy. Pastors counseled believers, while teachers explained the Bible. Above them were church elders, or presbyters, and deacons, who cared for the poor. In the late 1500s Calvin's system became standard practice in the churches of the Netherlands, Switzerland, and parts of the Holy Roman Empire*. England, meanwhile, maintained a church structure similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the monarch replaced the pope as the supreme head of the church.
- * laypeople
those who are not members of the clergy
- * theology
study of the nature of God and of religion
- * chastity
purity or virginity
- * secular
nonreligious; connected with everyday life
- * diocese
geographical area under the authority of a bishop
- * hierarchy
organization of a group into higher and lower levels
- * Holy Roman Empire
political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806
Regular Clergy . The life of the monk in a monastery differed little from that of the peasant farmer in the activities by which he maintained his livelihood. Both worked hard in the fields, clearing land and farming. The monk’s religious vocation meant, however, that the same tasks were seen to be directed to a particular end or purpose, the service of God. Unlike the aphysical ascetic lifestyle that eastern monks took on, western monks stressed the spiritual value of physical work. Western monks or “regular” clergy followed a set of regulations known as the Rule, a pragmatic articulation of the habits that would keep monastic communities alive.
Daily Schedule . The daily schedule of the monk was much more ordered than that of the village peasant, one of the reasons perhaps that monastic farms were considered to have been the best in medieval Europe. Benedict of Nursia had set up life in his own monastery at Monte Cassino according to a Rule whereby the monks could devote their lives to both work and prayer. The Benedictine Rule provided, in the twenty-four-hour day, for eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, and eight hours of devotion, reading, meditation and meals. According to the Rule, monks were to be educated so they could help themselves in their Christian studies, and each day began with collective prayer and study at dawn. In the morning the monks were found in prayer, at a general meeting, and at work for the two hours before midday. The strict schedule continued into the afternoon with lunch, study, work, and prayer until dinner at dusk. One evening hour was reserved for further prayer with bedtime following dusk by only two and a half hours.
Austerity. Benedictines thus worked and prayed together in their monasteries. For nuns the schedule was similar to that for monks of the same order, dedicated to prayer, study, and the exercise of sustenance skills, including spinning. However grueling the awakening at around 3:00 a.m. for nocturnes and again for prime at around 6:00 a.m., six unequal hours before noon, those acts, like virtually every one of the monk’s and nun’s schedule, repeated daily, became almost automatic. Monks had two meals a day in the monastery, and neither the food nor utensils
were luxurious. Eggs, fish or fowl, bread, vegetables, and a little fruit made up their main diet. There was no red meat. Their clothing consisted of long loose robes of coarse material, with hoods to cover their heads.
Monastery . A monastery, the home of the monks, was a collection of specialized buildings. There was the dormitory where the monks slept on hard cots, special separate cells where they studied and thought, the refectory where they ate, and the chapter house where they discussed monastery business. Other buildings that comprised the monastery included a kitchen, bakery, brewery, workshops, storehouses, and a hospital. Posterity has been fortunate to have had preserved the actual plan of an ideal monastery, dating from the ninth century. The plan, ostensibly drawn up for the rebuilding of the monastery of Saint-Gall, consists of a series of architectural drawings to scale with explanatory legends, which did indeed guide the construction of numerous monasteries of the period, most notably Corbie, which in 852 housed 150 monks, fed another 150 widows, and gave lodging to 300 guests daily.
Secular Clergy . The local priest was not really a common member of the rural community until after 1000, when Western Europe was divided into parishes with defined territories and local churches were a part of the rural landscape. His role was to represent the church at the local religious center, the parish church or chapel, where he administered the sacraments and blessings of the Christian calendar. Probably of peasant origin and poorly educated, the local priest took his part alongside the peasantry in some farming tasks. In his role as priest, however, he daily said mass and had prayer several times, all in Latin. He usually preached in the vernacular; however, he taught the local parishioners to memorize the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed in Latin. The remuneration that allowed him to pursue his usual tasks was the percentage of tithes, compulsory donations to the church, which was permitted to stay with him locally, and the fees which were charged for special services such as baptisms.
G. G. Coulton, Medieval Village, Manor, and Monastery (New York: Harper, 1960).
Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
M. M. Postan, E. E. Rich, and Edward Miller, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
See also benefit of clergy.